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Joe Biden’s cancellation of student loans isn’t corrupt – it’s good politics

For those who complain about the US president’s latest fulfilment of a campaign promise: politics is meant to help people.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON DC – On Wednesday (24 August), the US president Joe Biden announced he would cancel $10,000 in student debt for individuals making less than $125,000. Those who received Pell Grants – federal aid for low-income students – could qualify for an additional $10,000. In doing this, Biden fulfilled a campaign promise, albeit belatedly and partially. He also announced student debt repayment, paused during the pandemic, would restart next year.

Though this is not everything that activists pushed for, it is significant. With this announcement, almost half of Latino student loan debt will be forgiven. Per the Department of Education’s estimate, among those no longer in school, almost 90 per cent of relief dollars will be directed at individuals who make less than $75,000 a year. The idea pushed by some critics – that student debt forgiveness asks the poor to pay for the wealthy – is simply untrue.

There are two other common criticisms of student debt cancellation. The first is that it’s unfair. Other people had to pay back their debt – and besides, why should society pay for what somebody decided to take on? Other people worked hard and paid off their loans, so why can’t those with student debt do the same? This argument deliberately overlooks two points. The first is that many of us today benefit from services that didn’t once exist; that is not a reason not to have those services. The second is that, to the extent that loan forgiveness is society paying for someone else’s debt, society pays for things that do not directly benefit everyone all the time. Federal taxes from New York go to Alabama. Taxpayer money maintains roads that the individual taxpayer may never drive down. So it goes. (It should also be noted that non-college graduates are actually the  to strongly oppose debt forgiveness.)

The other common criticism, pushed by people such as the Republican senator Mitt Romney and the son of the former president, Donald Trump Jr, is that Biden is trying to buy votes. In a way, he is: courting votes by doing something he promised to do that may prove politically popular. But that is not corrupt. That is politics. You make a promise, you keep it, you get rewarded for it. 

Biden, for his part, offered via Twitter, “I will never apologize for helping America’s middle class – especially not to the same folks who voted for a $2 trillion tax cut for the wealthy and giant corporations that racked up the deficit.” It is a message that articulates the point of politics: to help people.

This article first appeared in the World Review newsletter. It comes out on Mondays and Fridays; subscribe here.

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